Medieval medicine went high-tech when the National Library
of Medicine recently unveiled its illustrated catalog of
Islamic medical manuscripts on the World Wide Web at
"The National Library of Medicine has one of the three
greatest collections of Islamic medical manuscripts in the
world (388 treatises in all), and some of them are the only
ones in existence," says Dr. Emilie Savage-Smith, an
American scholar from Oxford University and one of the
world's foremost authorities on Islamic medicine.
Savage-Smith, who has prepared the illustrated catalog, said
that a manuscript copied in 1094 containing a treatise
written by the famous physician and clinician al-Razi (known
to Europeans as Rhazes) is the crown jewel of the Library's
collection. "It is believed to be the third oldest Arabic
medical manuscript in the world," said Dr. Elizabeth Fee,
chief of the History of Medicine Division. Beautifully
scripted, the manuscript's pages are still in superb
condition, as readable as they ever were.
The Library acquired its collection from various sources,
including purchases made from a bequest of Dr. William F.
Edgar, a physician who in 1849 had taken a wagon train over
the Oregon Trail and settled in California.
Dr. Philip M. Teigen, who has coordinated the Library's 10-
year project, which included an earlier exhibit and a
symposium on Islamic medical manuscripts, says, "we then
wanted to take the treasures of our Islamic Medicine
collection and make them more widely available to the
general public. Publishing them on the World Wide Web seemed
to be the best way to reach the largest number of people."
He notes that many of the manuscripts are beautifully
illustrated and very appealing.
Savage-Smith has carefully examined all of NLM's Islamic
medical manuscripts and the illustrated catalogue is the
result of her nearly decade-long endeavor.
The online catalog includes an essay on each of the
manuscripts and has links to a glossary of terms,
illustrations, biographical material, and other pertinent
information. It will be published in three segments. The
first section, now on the Web, deals with medical
encyclopedias. Subsequent sections will deal
pharmaceuticals, plague tracts, veterinary medicine, and
general hygiene. As many as 300 illustrations will be
included in the catalog.
Islamic physicians, inspired by Hippocrates, Galen, and
other Greek and Roman predecessors, made extensive efforts
to understand the remarkably wide range of diseases they
faced. In response to that challenge, they identified many
new surgical, medical, and pharmaceutical treatments.
The manuscripts show that Islamic physicians treated a wide
variety of ailments and diseases, including stomach diseases
and hemorrhoids (very prevalent), promoted dental hygiene,
and listed tips on how to improve sexual desire. There is a
treatise on how to treat forgetfulness (mental exercises
were recommended), and their techniques on eye surgery were
so successful that some of them continued in use into the
The Islamic achievements in this area, as well as in anatomy
and surgery, led European teachers and practitioners to
translate the hundreds of Arabic and Persian medical tracts
into Latin and then into French, Italian, and English. In a
very real sense, the European tradition of medical science
and practice, which has now spread world-wide, owes a great
debt to Avicenna, al-Nafis, Rhazis, Abulcasis and other
Islamic practitioners and scholars.
"Much of our medical vocabulary comes from the Arabic," says
Savage-Smith "and virtually all European medical manuscripts
were based on the Islamic medical practices."
You can view the collection at:www.nlm.nih.gov/hmd/arabic/arabichome.html
Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of
Health, is the world's largest library of the health